10 Things I’ve Learned About Church History from ‘The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1” by Justo L. Gonzalez
by Rachel Held Evans
May 22, 2013
A couple weeks ago it occurred to me that I know next to nothing about church history. So, in an effort to remedy that situation, I ordered The Story of Christianity, Volumes 1 and 2, by Justo Gonzalez from Amazon, and brought them with me to the beach—you know, for a little light reading.
Here are a few random observations from my first week of reading:
1. Christians have never been in full agreement when it comes to theology. (And our little theological blog spats have NOTHING on the Arian controversy or the Inquisition, let me tell you!) But often, these disagreements and controversies lead to important developments in Christian thought, theology, and practice. The Nicene Creed, for example, was formulated largely as a response to Arianism. (The Apostle’s Creed is older.) I find this oddly comforting. There’s less pressure to figure everything out. We’re always in process, always debating and discussing, always getting a little bit right and a lot wrong.
2. Constantine was not baptized until just before his death. And his conversion to Christianity is as big a deal as we make it out to be. It changed Christianity forever and marked the beginning of an ongoing, uncomfortable, and at times destructive relationship between Christianity and power.
3. Calls for social justice aren’t new or trendy, but have been a part of church teachings for many centuries. See the writings of John Chrysostom, Basil, Ambrose, St. Francis, and many others. “If one who takes the clothing off another is called a thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the naked and refuses to do so?” wrote Basil. “The bread that you withhold belongs to the poor; the cape that you hide in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes rotting in your house belong to those who must go unshod.”
4. Also not as new as I once thought: bishops, and church hierarchy in general.
5. I always thought that the Council of Nicea marked the final acceptance of orthodoxy when it came to the divinity of Christ. But Arianism—the belief that Jesus was created by God as a subordinate and separate entity, not the incarnation of God—made a pretty serious comeback, and with the support of the empire, it nearly won the day! Jerome wrote that “the world woke up as from a slumber, and discovered itself to be Arian.” Athanasius and other supporters of Nicene theology were exiled and persecuted for defending orthodoxy, but in the end, their tenacity, patience, and thoughtfulness prevailed. Also, Athanasius was nicknamed “the black dwarf.”
6. Pretty much every time I conclude that a Church Father seems like a pretty cool guy, I learn that he hated Jews and/or women.
7. I think it’s safe to say Saint Anthony was an introvert.
8. In the fourth and fifth centuries there was a Christian sect called Donatism. Some Donatists peasants were convinced that there was no death more glorious than that of the martyrs, but since the persecution of Christians had ended, they committed to violently resisting those they perceived to be heretics. Gonzalez writes that “in some cases, this quest for martyrdom rose to such a pitch that people committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs"! Point: There's always this tendency to take a good thing to its extreme, whether it's respect for martyrdom, veneration of the saints, solitude, aestheticism, or even engagement with the culture.
9. Monastics have always struggled to hold in tension the desire for solitude with the importance of community and service.
10. Gonzalez thanks his word processor in the Preface. That seems worth noting.
I’ll post 10 more things when I’ve finished reading!
I’ve found that most Christians know very little about the history of the church. And we Protestants have the unfortunate habit of skipping from the epistles of Paul to Martin Luther and the 95-theses, leaving centuries of church history in the dust.
How can we do better?
And what have you learned about church history lately? Any fun facts?